Spring is a time of change at Vassar: leaves and flowers pop, executive boards turn over, and another crop of seniors takes their last finals and moves out for the last time. This year, change is going on higher up as well: Stephen Dahnert is stepping in as Acting Vice President for Finance and Administration to replace Robert Walton, and Dr. Adriana Karapetian di Bartolo has been named the new Dean of Students. Meanwhile, the search for President Catharine Bond Hill’s replacement is already well underway after the announcement on March 29 that Hill will be concluding her presidency after the 2017 academic year.
The Presidential Search Committee is composed of Committee Co-Chairs Geraldine Laybourne ’69 and Anthony Friscia ’78 and Trustees Karen Ackman ’88, Maryellen Herringer ’65, Philip Jefferson ’83, Susan Mandel ’78, and William Plapinger ’74; Vassar Professors Teresa Garrett, Jamie Kelly, Mia Mask, Peipei Qiu, and Paul Ruud; and current students Conor Flanagan ’17 and Ellie Winter ’18. This 14-person group is joined by Dean of Admission and Financial Aid Art Rodriguez as Non-Voting Observer, AAVC President Missie Taylor ’68 as Advisor to the Co-Chairs and Professor of Mathematics and Statistics John Feroe as Secretary.
The committee has just completed its first major milestone: hiring a search firm to scour the nation for Vassar’s next leading executive. After presentations from the top three search firms associated with liberal arts colleges and a process of evaluation and reference checking, the committee selected Isaacson, Miller, a firm with headquarters in Boston that has recently worked with Amherst, Spelman, Wellesley and Bowdoin Colleges. This decision was made by unanimous vote.
On May 26, the first full meeting of the committee formally kicked off the search process, and a preceding open session that morning included introductions, general information about the search process, and smaller discussion groups between the committee and interested members of the Vassar community. At the meeting, committee members cited a range of reasons for their involvement in the search process. Friscia said, “I was a first-generation student. Vassar gave me an education, so I will do anything for this college.” Garrett noted the impact Vassar has had on her, saying, “I test out things all the time to make my classroom as inclusive as possible…Vassar has inspired me to be that kind of educator.”
Going forward, the committee will be focused for the next two months on creating a position statement that describes what Vassar is looking for. According to Laybourne, some traits highlighted during the search for Hill included an appreciation for the importance of access and a commitment to valuing the sciences. Describing the goals of the position statement, Laybourne said, “We will try to make a document that is truly Vassar…we want to be sure that we represent Vassar in its fullness.” After Isaacson, Miller brings back a list of candidates, the committee can whittle it down to a smaller pool; they will then examine each of these candidates in more depth, invite a few to interview, and gradually pare down until they have a single candidate to nominate. At this point, the Board of Trustees will have the final say.
Laybourne noted that, relative to the 2005 search, the committee is behind in the process— an issue exacerbated by the fact that the majority of students, and many faculty members, are no longer on campus. Stressing the importance of community voices, Friscia asserted, “One of the things that’s very important to us is that this is as inclusive a process as possible.” In order to solve part of this problem, faculty members are meeting to work toward finding a faculty representative, and a member of Isaacson, Morris was on campus on May 27 to speak with senior officers. Also, a survey was sent out to the community by Feroe, and Flanagan and Winter have connected with students via a survey emailed to students by incoming VSA President Calvin Lamothe ’17.
Flanagan and Winter were chosen as student representatives by the VSA Executive Board in conjunction with the Board of Elections and Appointments. Describing why he chose to apply, Flanagan said, “I really, really love Vassar and I’ve just felt for a long time like it’s not doing a good enough job for a lot of its students. I really appreciate it here…but there’s clearly a lot of unhappiness and downright misery on the campus for a lot of people.”
Flanagan feels that despite the progress Hill has helped orchestrate in financial accessibility, Vassar still fails many marginalized students on matters of both aid and visibility. “[Vassar] hasn’t done enough with support structures within the school, for first-generation students, or students of color, or anyone who’s not the classic privileged middle-to-upper-class white kid,” he said. “We are a much more diverse school than even a lot of the student body perceives it to be, but it still feels like that elite white institution, even as we move away from that.”
Flanagan noted that privilege vs. marginalization is not the only conflict Vassar officers could handle better. He added, “More broadly, the administration is just not addressing student concerns well. Last year there was a rally around Main Building to protest…racism and sexual assault and mental health issues, and…there’s been some progress on mental health issues, but on the other things, it doesn’t seem like anything has changed. That’s not okay.”
So far, Flanagan says, his and Winter’s role in the committee has been limited to collecting student input. “That’s our main responsibility right now: to keep track of what the students want from the next president,” he explained. “I don’t know that we’ll get assigned anything specific other than that.” In preparation for the meeting on May 26, the two met and coordinated their priorities. “We’re pretty much on the same page so far,” Flanagan said. In terms of aligning his and Winter’s goals with those of the committee, Flanagan noted that the latter agreed that maintaining financial accessibility and need-blind is an essential concern in the coming conversations.
There are still some disparities between student and committee outlooks, though. “They still seem very disconnected from actual student life in a lot of ways,” said Flanagan, “and that’ll be a tough gap to bridge.” Attention to student life is one of Flanagan’s main considerations in choosing the new president: “I think the most important thing is that they’re a person who really prioritizes the student body’s needs and wants,” he said. “Cappy has done some really good stuff with financial accessibility and the Posse program, but it doesn’t feel like she’s in tune with the student body, and that’s the most important thing. So we really want a president who gets it insofar as they can.”
Some survey responses suggested that a younger president would be better able to reach these goals. Flanagan agreed and said, “I think someone who has experience with accessibility issues and marginalization issues would be good. They can’t be coming into that without any prior knowledge…You can’t learn that on the job well enough.”
Flanagan emphasized the importance of student participation, encouraging everyone to fill out the survey Lamothe emailed. “We can always use more input on that,” he noted. He also encouraged any students with concerns to reach out to him or Winter. “We’re doing this so that students can be heard in a way they haven’t been under Cappy,” he said. “And obviously the president that gets selected is essential to that, but it doesn’t matter if students aren’t engaged.” Student participation will allow the Vassar community to add their visions of the ideal president to what Flanagan expressed: “Someone who understands that Vassar is a school, but it’s also our home, and treats it that way.”
The Presidential search may be the most publicized change in administration, but leadership is changing in other departments as well. In the Finance and Administration department, Associate Vice President for Financial Services and Treasurer Stephen Dahnert is taking on the role of Acting Vice President for the next two years, effective July 1. Dahnert is replacing Robert Walton, who will leave Vassar this year to become CEO of the National Association of College Stores, headquartered in Oberlin, Ohio. “I will oversee the work and personnel of the Finance and Administration division of the College,” said Dahnert in an emailed statement. “In my present role I oversee Accounting Services as well as treasury functions; to this I will add Facilities Operations, Human Resources, and Budgeting.”
Most recently, on May 26, Dean of the College Christopher Roellke announced the appointment of Dr. Adriana Karapetian di Bartolo as the new Dean of Students. Di Bartolo’s position will begin on July 5, 2016. She has served at Pomona College and the Claremont Colleges in several roles, including founding director of the Claremont Colleges’ Queer Resource Center of the Claremont Colleges and Acting Associate Dean of Students for Personal Success and Wellness. At Pomona, she has served as Interim Associate Dean of Students and as a member of Pomona’s Title IX Advisory Committee.
As graduates leave campus and face an expansive new future, Vassar also faces a new chapter in its administrative history. Throughout the summer, faculty and students will be hard at work building this new era, and when students return in September, they will be faced with a different Vassar.